Saturday, 30 July 2011

'The Phantom of the Opera' by Gaston Leroux (1911)

Synopsis: For several years there have been rumours of a ghost that haunts the Paris opera house and its underground tunnels - and that it wreaks havoc if anything makes it angry. Despite the sightings and fears of the ballerinas and stage-hands, the new managers of the opera house are determined to stamp out the ridiculous stories about the 'Phantom of the Opera'. This results in threatening letters and an increasing amount of "accidents". Meanwhile the young and beautiful soprano Christine Daae is taking Paris by storm although no-one knows who's taught her how to sing. When her childhood sweetheart, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, pays Christine a visit one night he overhears a passionate exchange between her and a man in her dressing room... but there isn't a man in her dressing room. Christine credits her new-found vocal abilities to the Angel of Music, who is of course the opera ghost. Raoul then discovers that the Phantom is really a half-mad and horribly deformed musical genius called Erik - who is madly in love with Christine and has made her become engaged to him. Raoul and Christine then plan to run away together but Christine's "Angel of Music" isn't going to let her leave him so easily...

I actually read this book ages before I saw this book's most famous adaptation, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I'm possibly one of the few people alive today that has done that. Most people discover Phantom of the Opera through the musical first but I hadn't even listened to a cast recording at the time and only knew the title song. I had no idea what to expect from this book and I had no expectations whatsoever. In the end I absolutely loved it : ) It's one of my favourite books and I think it's fantastic and criminally underrated.

Gaston Leroux took inspiration from many different elements when he wrote The Phantom of the Opera. He drew from the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, his favourite opera Faust, Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, his love of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe's detective fiction, and also classical mythology (the tale of Orpheus and the underworld and the tale of Eros and Psyche). Leroux put all of these different elements together and came up a beautiful and heartwrenching love triangle and one of the very best anti-heroes ever. Erik is arrogant, selfish, menacing, violent and mentally unhinged. He throws tantrums like a child. He stalks and then kidnaps Christine. He's even a murderer and kills at least two people. Is it any wonder that Christine chose Raoul?! However Leroux still manages to make Erik a sympathetic character and even very likeable despite all of his faults. Erik is intensely lonely. He's deeply and genuinely in love with Christine. He's also hideously ugly and has been deprived of any sort of love and affection in his life because of that. Raoul and Christine might be the hero and heroine of the book - and they are good characters - but the Phantom is the character that everyone pities and loves.

Leroux's Phantom of the Opera is hugely engaging and a magnificent gothic-mystery novel. I adore gothic literature and this book has an amazingly eerie and haunting atmosphere. It's got a snowy cemetery, dark opera backstages and underground labyrinths. Also, even when the Phantom isn't technically on the page his presence is everywhere in this book. I also very much love the fact that the book is written as a detective/mystery novel because I love that genre. The Phantom of the Opera has got action and romance and is even quite funny at times (Erik has a very dark and sarcastic sense of humour). 

The Phantom of the Opera is such a massively underrated novel. Admittedly it's hardly the most obscure classic out there but it's much less famous than the musical it inspired. It deserves to be much more widely known. In fact people don't tend to read this novel unless they're already a fan of the ALW musical and they're often shocked at the differences between the two. The Phantom's name is Erik in the book but in the musical it's never mentioned. The Persian, who is one of the most important characters in the novel, is completely absent in the musical. Raoul is brave and chivalrous in the musical but in the book he's emotionally hysterical and has a tendency to burst into tears. Thankfully he does toughen up as the story goes along. Raoul has an older brother called Philippe in the book. The managers of the opera house aren't quite as comical in the book as they are in the musical. It's even implied that Christine Daae - who is blonde and blue-eyed in this version by the way - may be a madwoman at the beginning of the book before the reason for her strange behaviour is explained. Christine is also a stronger and better-developed character in the book than she is in the musical. The musical is still pretty faithful when it comes to the major plot points and events of the book however and the Phantom is still the most intriguing of the characters.

You don't need me to tell you about this book though, right? If you're any kind of Phantom fan then you'll have already read this book by now. And if you haven't read this book then what are you waiting for?! The ALW musical is fantastic in its own right of course and I adore its beautiful music and its amazing visuals. It's my second favourite musical after Les Miserables. However you'll understand the Phantom better from reading this book and the ending is better in my opinion. That final conversation between Erik and the Persian is absolutely heartbreaking. The only complaint that I have with this book is that Raoul and the Persian's scene with the Ratcatcher towards the end is really random and weird. But apart from that it's awesome. Read it! : ) 

Rating: 5/5

'Wicked' by Gregory Maguire (1995)

Synopsis: Wicked is a prequel to L. Frank Baum's novel The Wizard of Oz and its famous film adaptation. It takes place in the land of Oz and in the years leading up to Dorothy's arrival. The main character is Elphaba, a misunderstood girl with green skin who eventually becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. 

I really wanted to like this book because I really love the musical. Instead I was extremely disappointed. OK, it is an imaginative and mostly well-written book. Maguire takes a story that most of us are familiar with and writes a fresh take on it about the Wicked Witch of the West. It is a great idea and I'm grateful that Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman recognised that - otherwise we would never have had the musical. Yet despite the excellent premise I just couldn't bring myself to like the book.

Maguire's Wicked isn't very well-paced at all and the story often drags. None of the characters are particularly well-developed in this book either and they all came across as being flat and very unlikeable - even Elphaba left me cold. She's irrational, moody, bad-tempered, sometimes spiteful and petulant, and I wasn't convinced of her supposed affection for some of the other characters. Wasn't the whole point of this book to make the Witch a more sympathetic character?! : S I wanted far more action and character development in this book.

Another problem that I have with this book is because I get the impression that it's trying to be a profound study of the nature of good and evil. But the book is nowhere as "deep" or intellectual as it clearly thinks it is and it's far too preoccupied with sex. The book is packed with sexual innuendo and sexual references. Some of it occurs in some fairly bizarre places! I especially hated The Philosophy Club scene. It was unpleasant to read as it's very, very creepy and disturbing. I doubt many people would enjoy reading about a man and a Tiger engaged in some weird sex act! It was also completely pointless. Yes it's implied that a character picked up an STD at that sex club but they were a very minor character anyway and it didn't have a significant impact on the story. I got the impression that that scene was included purely for shock value. 

I didn't enjoy this book at all and I know I won't read it again or bother with its sequels. However I really love the musical and would happily see that again. It's brilliant and I'd recommend it even to people who hated this book. The novel and musical have almost nothing in common and are VERY different. They share the same title, the names of the characters, and a couple of the same plot points but that's pretty much it. The musical also improves upon the book's faults. The plot is much tighter and more focused. The characters are better fleshed out: Elphaba, G(a)linda, Fiyero, Nessarose and even the Wizard are better-rounded, more likeable and more sympathetic. I can actually relate to the musical's Elphaba (to a point) and I really like the fact that she and Glinda have a much closer friendship than they do in Maguire's book. I prefer Elphaba's romance with Fiyero in the musical as well. The musical is more family-friendly than the book too so there are no pointless and unnecessary sexual references. The musical also throws in some clever twists and the songs are brilliant.

The only reason that I'm glad I read Wicked is because I now realise what an amazing job Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman did in adapting it. Quite frankly I'm amazed that they were able to get such a great story out of it! To sum up: skip the book, see the musical instead.

Rating: 1/5

'Lady Susan, The Watsons & Sanditon' by Jane Austen (1871)

This book is a little collection of Jane Austen works that went unpublished during her lifetime. It includes the complete novella Lady Susan and two unfinished novels: The Watsons and Sanditon. None of these stories are as good as her novels so I can't really recommend them to newcomers or casual fans. But for Janeites like myself this book will be a very interesting and worthwhile read! I really enjoyed Margaret Drabble's introduction to the book as well. I don't tend to comment on academic introductions to books because I generally find them quite stuffy but Drabble's was genuinely interesting and helped to put the texts into context. Lady Susan was a very early work that Austen wrote when she was still living in Steventon, Hampshire. The Watsons was one of the few things that Austen wrote when she was living in Bath and was probably abandoned after her father died. Sanditon was written after Persuasion and in the final few months of her life. 

Lady Susan
In some ways this is very different to Austen's novels. It's written in an epistolary format and the "heroine" is very different to the heroines in Austen's novels. Austen's other heroines are very likeable but Lady Susan herself is a scheming, devious, selfish cow and an appalling mother. She has more in common with Sense and Sensibility's Lucy Steele, Northanger Abbey's Isabella Thorpe and Mansfield Park's Mary Crawford than Austen's other heroines. She is witty and intelligent though so she's not wholly without positive features. Through a series of letters we read about her plot to seduce and marry her brother-in-law; her effort to rekindle her affair with her married lover; and her attempt to force her daughter into marrying a man she detests. We also read about Lady Susan's sister-in-law, Mrs Vernon, and her efforts to stop all this from happening. This novella isn't on the same level as Austen's novels. Although it does have a good plot, and isn't without its witty moments, it still isn't as amusing as Austen's other works. You can see why she later chose to write in third-person. A lot of the humour in Austen's novels comes from the wry, detached narration. Epistolary writing simply doesn't play to Austen's strengths as a writer as much. Still, this is a very interesting work to read because Austen's emerging talent is obvious. It's also the most satisfactory story in this book for me because I don't feel any frustration about it not being finished.

The Watsons
I can't even begin to describe how disappointed I was when I got to the end of this one! That's not because it's bad, quite the opposite! The Watsons is so enjoyable and it's such a shame that Austen didn't get the chance to finish it! I think The Watsons would have been a great novel and right up there with Austen's best had it been finished. It's funny and the plot is engaging. This is the story that's most in keeping with what you'd expect from Austen and the plot has elements of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. The heroine, Emma Watson, has gone back to live with her family after spending the last 14 years being happily brought up by her wealthy aunt. Emma begins to adapt to life with her sometimes vulgar family again and attracts the attention of three different men: the charmingly rakish Tom Musgrave, the cold Lord Osbourne, and the quiet, bookish Mr Howard. Emma Watson is a very likeable character. I liked her conversations with her sister Elizabeth, and her offering to dance with young Charles at the ball is much like Knightley's asking Harriet Smith to dance in Emma and a very kind thing to do. This story also has a major child character which is interesting as it's something that's unusual in Austen's other works.

It pains me to say it because I love Austen but I wasn't very keen on this story and it's my least favourite of the stories in this book. Even though it's much less clear how Sanditon would have ended than The Watsons, I'm less saddened by the fact that it wasn't finished. The characters in this just aren't as well-developed and endearing as those in Austen's other works - although saying that I did like Sir Edward Denham (who's very funny!) and the cheerful Mr Parker. The heroine, Charlotte Heywood, has some very likeable qualities (sensible, observant, etc) but she's a bit boring and Sanditon is much less focused on her than The Watsons is with Emma. Charlotte functions more as our observer into the comings-and-goings of the town and she herself isn't particularly interesting. However, I suppose if Austen had been able to continue with the story then she might have been able to develop the characters in better detail as she carried on writing. Sanditon is still worth a read though as it is well-written. Austen isn't really famed for being a descriptive writer but there's a particularly well-written description of Charlotte and the Parkers arriving into Sanditon.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, 29 July 2011

'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen (1811)

Synopsis: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the two eldest daughters of Mr Dashwood's marriage to his second wife. The sisters are very different from one another. Elinor is sensible and private while Marianne is openly emotional and impulsive. They live at a country estate called Norland Park in rural Sussex. When their father dies, Norland is entailed over to their older half-brother John. The girls, their mother, and their younger sister Margaret are then forced to live on John's charity. Elinor knows that they will soon have to move away from their home if they don't want to live with John's cold and manipulative wife. She manages to persuade her mother to seek assistance from a distant and wealthy relative who then offers them a small cottage in Devonshire with a reasonable rent. Elinor is more upset by this move than she's letting on because it will mean that she'll be leaving behind her budding relationship with her sister-in-law's brother Edward Ferrars. After their move, the Dashwoods find themselves spending a great deal of time with their cousin Sir John Middleton, his wife and children, his mother-in-law Mrs Jennings, and his long-time friend Colonel Brandon who soon falls in love with Marianne. However, Marianne finds their new company rather dull and longs for some excitement in her life. This is then provided when she meets her dashing and handsome neighbour John Willoughby. As Elinor quietly hopes for a reunion with Edward, Marianne and Willoughby become closer and closer. Two shocking secrets then emerge which threaten to separate the Dashwood sisters from the men they love. They then find happiness in unexpected ways and learn more about sense and sensibility.

It's December 2014. This review was originally written back in 2011 but after re-reading this book I've decided to re-work this review. Sense and Sensibility isn't one of my favourites by Jane Austen although I do love both the 1995 and 2008 adaptations. I much prefer Sense and Sensibility to Mansfield Park and Lady Susan but I don't love it anywhere near as much as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Emma. I guess it's very middle ground for me. The novel has a huge amount of merit though and I do like it. I enjoy the story, it's brilliantly-written, it's funny, it's dramatic, and there are some great characters. My favourite secondary character in the book by far is Mrs Jennings. She always seems to have the worst and least helpful things to say in a crisis but she's such a jolly, kind, well-intentioned and big-hearted woman. Her decision to stay behind at Cleveland to help nurse Marianne back to health is very touching. 

Sense and Sensibility is famous for being the only Jane Austen novel to feature two heroines. Re-reading this book has been something of a revelation because for quite a few years I've believed myself to be closer to Marianne in terms of personality. "She's passionate and sensitive! She fangirls over music and literature! She's a romantic!" But after re-reading this book I now think differently. I think my impressions of Marianne have been very heavily influenced by Kate Winslet's Marianne in the 1995 film. I love Kate Winslet's portrayal of Marianne. She brings all of Marianne's positive qualities to light beautifully. When I re-read this book it struck me just how immature Marianne is at times! I remembered a Marianne who was unable to control her emotions but actually Marianne can control her emotions perfectly well; her problem is that she just doesn't want to! After Willoughby tells Marianne that he has to go away on business and then leaves Devonshire, Marianne's behaviour becomes very silly. She isolates herself, goes without sleep, cries, and mopes away without any consideration for the feelings of her family. If Marianne had been genuinely unable to control her emotions she would have had my full sympathies, but Austen makes it clear that Marianne is only acting like this because she's gotten it into her head that this is how a young woman in love ought to behave. She's also very rude to Mrs Jennings and Brandon on several occasions. I didn't find Marianne anywhere near as relatable on this re-read and during the first half of the novel she annoyed me quite a lot. Having said that I did feel really sorry for her when Willoughby broke her heart in London and I liked that she had the humility to own up to her mistakes towards the end. I consider myself to be much more like Elinor now. Elinor is sensitive and emotional as well but unlike Marianne she cares about propriety and knows when it's best to conceal what she's feeling. Elinor will speak her mind when she's in the right company and judges it appropriate. And she's actually very funny too! She gets some great lines! 

Although Marianne annoys me at times, the main reason why I can't love Sense and Sensibility is because I don't find it as romantically satisfying as most of Austen's other novels. I'm not fond of the male characters. Willoughby is lively, charming and has a clear and definable personality but his treatment of Eliza Williams, Marianne and even Miss Grey is appalling. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are far nicer and are much more honourable but I find them both so bland and underdeveloped that I can't really warm to them. Elinor is much too good and interesting a heroine to end up with someone as boring as Edward. Brandon is a bit better but Marianne's change of heart at the end feels extremely abrupt. I have a very hard time believing that Marianne could fall in love with Brandon so easily considering how much she loved Willoughby. The book could have really benefited with an extra chapter or two to properly explain Marianne's change of heart and how she came to fall in love with Brandon. 

I think both the 1995 and 2008 adaptations improve upon Austen's book in several respects. Dan Stevens' Edward from the 2008 version is far more likeable and handsome than Edward is in the book but overall my favourite S&S adaptation is the 1995 film. That film isn't just my favourite S&S adaptation, it's my favourite Jane Austen adaptation in general and is one of my favourite films ever! The acting is terrific and Emma Thompson's script is wonderful. Her script beautifully captures the tone and spirit of Austen's novel but she makes several changes that actually improve the story. For example: Margaret Dashwood, who is a very minor and underdeveloped character in Austen's book, has a much more prominent role in the film. She gets an actual personality and is used as comic relief.

So, again, Sense and Sensibility isn't one of my favourites by Jane Austen but I do have a great deal of respect and liking for the book.  

Rating: 4/5 

'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen (1813)

Synopsis: Elizabeth Bennet is the second of the Bennet family's five daughters and is lively, playful and witty. Her family is thrown into an uproar when a highly eligible bachelor called Mr Bingley moves into a nearby country estate. As their family home is entailed over to a distant cousin called Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet is determined to have all of her five daughters marry as soon as possible. At a local assembly, Bingley's eye is soon caught by Elizabeth's sweet and beautiful older sister Jane. He is instantly smitten and Jane shyly returns his affections. Bingley's good friend Mr Darcy is also at the assembly. Although initially admired for his handsome looks, Darcy makes a very bad impression at the assembly because of his cold and haughty manners. Elizabeth is also highly offended when she overhears Darcy insulting her. Her dislike of Darcy then deepens even further when she's told that he mistreated her new friend George Wickham. Bingley then abruptly leaves the neighbourhood and Jane is heartbroken. Several months later, Elizabeth meets Darcy again when she goes to visit a friend in Kent. It's there that Elizabeth discovers that Darcy interfered in Bingley and Jane's relationship. Elizabeth is then completely shocked when Darcy unexpectedly confesses his love for her and proposes. Elizabeth then angrily refuses him and cites both his interference in Jane and Bingley's relationship and his treatment of Wickham. The truth is then revealed and Elizabeth slowly begins to learn Darcy's true character. She comes to realise that many of her assumptions about Darcy were wrong and becomes anxious that her chance of happiness with him has gone forever. 

I'm sure there are many people out there who could write far more eloquent reviews about this book's brilliance than me but I'll try my best. Pride and Prejudice is the first book by Jane Austen I read and it's probably still my favourite now, even though I have gone on to read Austen's other books and have loved them all. So why is it such an amazing book and why do I love it so much? Well, Pride and Prejudice is extremely entertaining. It's entertaining right from its deservedly famous opening line:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

It's entertaining right from Mr Bennet's hilariously sarcastic comments to his wife in the opening chapter. And it keeps on being brilliantly entertaining all the way through! Austen's writing is brilliantly witty and sharp and vivid and detailed. The story of Pride and Prejudice is incredibly engaging and intelligent. It's tightly-plotted and fast-paced and not a single character or chapter is wasted. The book is full of humour and is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. The characters are captivating, extremely realistic, believable and memorable. It's very romantic and Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy are two of my favourite fictional characters of all time.

Elizabeth Bennet has to be one of the greatest heroines in all of English Literature and is a fantastic role model even for women today. She's witty, lively, clever, feisty, independent, loyal and sensible. It could have been so easy to hate a character seemingly so perfect but Austen doesn't forget to provide her with a few flaws to humanise her. Elizabeth is therefore slightly judgemental at times and a bit stubborn and immature at the beginning. And as for Darcy, well, it's really not hard to see why he's such a popular romance hero. What with him being so mysterious, passionate and brooding and all that. Towards the end of the novel you get to see his sense of humour as well. Darcy is actually arrogant and cold to start off with but one of the many great things about Pride and Prejudice is its character development. He learns to overcome his pride just like Elizabeth learns to overcome her initial prejudice towards him. I don't love Darcy as much as I love Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey and Mr Knightley from Emma but he's still a brilliant character and I still really love him. The chemistry between Elizabeth and Darcy as they slowly start to fall in love with each other is electric and I love this quote from Darcy from his first proposal to Elizabeth:

"It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

How beautiful is that! It's a real pity that he had to ruin it by going on and on about how Elizabeth is socially inferior to him! The supporting characters in this book are fantastic as well. Mr Collins is hilariously pompous. Mr Bennet is hilariously sarcastic and witty. His incorrigible wife with her nerves is annoying but is somehow entertainingly so. There's the shy and sweet Jane. I could go on and on and on about all of the characters but I'll stop!

Pride and Prejudice has got social commentary in it as well. Austen goes into how the Napoleonic Wars affected the English countryside. There's a pompous and sanctimonious vicar who's set on social climbing - and Austen pokes some fun at the pretentious, self-obsessed and snobbish people of her time. It's very clear that Austen thinks that the system of entailment is awful. It's very clear that Austen thinks a woman doesn't have to marry a man if she doesn't want to. Pride and Prejudice is probably the best book ever written when it comes to showing the silliness of judging people based on first impressions as well. Austen writes about universal themes in this book too: love, social class and family. Austen was also writing in a time when it was actually frowned upon for women to write - and she did it amazingly! Yet another reason to love this book!

Pride and Prejudice is a brilliantly witty, charming, optimistic and romantic novel. It's such a feel-good book, it's a joy to read and it's pure escapism. It never fails to bring a smile to my face and the ending always leaves me satisfied. Practically all modern rom-coms attempt to rip Pride and Prejudice off by having the hero and heroine dislike each other at first but they're just simplified and dumbed-down. They miss out on all of Austen's brilliant characters, brilliant story, and brilliant humour. I absolutely love this book!

Rating: 5/5

'Persuasion' by Jane Austen (1818)

Synopsis: Anne Elliot is 27 years old and is the overlooked middle child of the vain Sir Walter Elliot. Anne's older sister Elizabeth is her father's favourite and is his constant companion. Her younger sister Mary is married to a man called Charles Musgrove and has a home of her own in a nearby village. Eight years ago, the 19 year old Anne fell in love with a handsome, charming and intelligent naval officer called Frederick Wentworth and they were briefly engaged. Unfortunately, Anne's closest friend and godmother Lady Russell disapproved of the match and persuaded Anne to break off the engagement. Anne has always regretted her decision to reject the man she loved and has never been able to forget Wentworth. Sir Walter's huge debts then force him to rent out the family estate Kellynch Hall and move the family over to Bath. Sir Walter's new tenant is a retired naval officer called Admiral Croft and it turns out that he is Wentworth's brother-in-law. Rather than instantly going to Bath, Anne chooses to spend a few months with her younger sister Mary. Anne spends a great deal of time with Mary's in-laws and soon finds herself meeting not only Admiral Croft and his wife but also her former fiancĂ©. Wentworth is now a captain and has become very wealthy due to his success in the Napoleonic Wars. Anne is still very much in love with Wentworth but he doesn't seem to feel the same. He's cold and aloof towards Anne and he begins to pay a great deal of attention to Mary's young and lively sister-in-law Louisa Musgrove. However, when an incident occurs on a trip to Lyme Regis, Wentworth is forcibly reminded of Anne's strength of character. Anne then goes to stay with her father and older sister in Bath and meets her charming cousin Mr Elliot who is also her father's heir. Mr Elliot seems very interested in Anne and an engagement between the two is soon expected. However, Anne's feelings towards Mr Elliot are very different and she suspects that he has ulterior motives. When Captain Wentworth then arrives in Bath, Anne begins to worry that the rumours of her engagement to Mr Elliot might prevent Wentworth from making her another proposal... if he even still loves her at all.

Persuasion is Jane Austen's final, completed novel and it was published posthumously. I'm a massive Austen fan. I've read all of her works and four of her novels get five star ratings from me: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I love this book and I only have a slight complaint to make about this book. Persuasion is too short. I believe that Austen's failing health made her rush things a little bit and cut out some originally planned material. I'm sure I read somewhere that she'd planned to include some more about Mr Elliot and Mrs Clay's characters? However that's my only small objection to this book. I still love it and I still think it's criminally underrated. This is because I get the impression that whilst this book is very popular with Austen fans that it isn't all that well-known to the general public. I think Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility are Austen's most famous works and that's probably down to those books having the most amount of adaptations. This is a huge shame. Persuasion is such a beautifully-written book and it's extremely emotional, moving and romantic.

The tone of Persuasion could not be any more different to Austen's earliest novel Northanger Abbey. That book is Austen's most exuberant, light-hearted and youthful novel but Persuasion is Austen at her most mature and serious. It's often described as an "autumnal" novel and I can see why. It hasn't got as much humour as Austen's other novels and it's a bit darker and more bittersweet. You can really feel Anne's loneliness and her longing for Wentworth at times. However Persuasion is by no means depressing! It's still got the charm, biting wit and funny moments that you'd expect to find in an Austen novel. The book is full of hope and I love that it's about forgiveness, second chances and enduring love.

Anne Elliot is Austen's oldest heroine. At 27 she's dangerously close to becoming a spinster! How glad am I that times have changed! I really love Anne. I must admit that I like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse more but Anne is my favourite out of Austen's more reserved heroines and is definitely the Austen heroine that I admire the most. Some readers criticise Anne for being too perfect but you have to bear in mind that Anne is Austen's most mature heroine. In all of Austen's other novels the heroine is either in or just out of her teens and she goes on a journey of self-discovery - but Anne has already done that and this is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. Anne has had years to examine her own motives and behaviour and the advice that she was given from the people around her. By the beginning of the novel Anne doesn't need anyone to tell her that she made a mistake by allowing herself to be subject to persuasion. Anne is one of my favourite fictional heroines and she's an extremely likeable character. She's warm, calm, intelligent, lovely, kind and far more tolerant of her annoying family than I could ever be. Captain Wentworth isn't my favourite Austen hero. I prefer Henry Tilney, Knightley and Darcy myself. But nevertheless Wentworth is still an attractive hero and the letter that he writes to Anne near the end is incredibly romantic and a powerful declaration of love.

Persuasion is beautifully-written, very emotional and moving, and a beautiful and timeless love story. I also consider it the most romantic of all of Austen's works - you can really feel the tension and unspoken feelings between Anne and Wentworth until it all comes out in Wentworth's letter at the end. It's a wonderful book.

Rating: 5/5

Monday, 25 July 2011

'Mansfield Park' by Jane Austen (1814)

Synopsis: Although born into a poor family, Fanny Price was adopted by her rich uncle as a child and now lives at the luxurious estate Mansfield Park. She lives with her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, his wife, his four children (Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia), and her horrible aunt Mrs Norris. Fanny is shy, sweet and sensitive and is treated as an inferior by almost all of her relations. Her cousin Edmund is the only one who shows her any kindness. Fanny and Edmund are very close and a romance between them seems likely. However, a pair of siblings called Henry and Mary Crawford then move into the neighbourhood. The Crawfords have spent most of their lives in London and are fashionable, worldly and sophisticated. The Crawford's arrival completely disrupts the calm world of Mansfield Park. Edmund falls in love with the beautiful and witty Mary whilst Henry flirts with both Maria (who is already engaged to a man called Mr Rushworth) and Julia. Fanny becomes increasingly concerned for Edmund because she can see that he's moving further and further away from the firm principles that he once had. When Henry then shifts his attentions towards her, Fanny is then faced with a very difficult decision. 

Generally regarded as Austen's darkest and most controversial novel, Mansfield Park isn't one of my favourites by Jane Austen. In fact it is the one that I love least out of her novels. However, it still has plenty of rewards and it's very far from being a bad or boring book. It's clever, it's insightful, it's witty, it has an interesting story, and it's brilliantly-written like all of Austen's books. It also has a very sympathetic heroine in Fanny Price. Fanny isn't one of my favourite heroines in literature but I still really like her.

I know that not everyone likes Fanny though. Her character has always been divisive amongst Mansfield Park's readers. Some readers have found her priggish and unlikeable and even Jane Austen's own mother thought she was insipid. I'd like to defend her though. Yes Fanny might seem passive and too reserved but it's only natural that she should be like that! The poor girl is sent to live away from home at a very young age to live with her uncle and aunt in their big, imposing manor house. She's bullied, neglected and treated like a slave by virtually all of her relations to the point where she feels almost worthless. She is never encouraged to hold or voice her own opinions. She never sees her family and most of them don't give a crap about her anyway. Even Fanny's poor health can probably be put down to her upbringing. Her room was never given a fire in the winter, her clothes were probably cast-offs, and her aunt Mrs Norris always insisted that Fanny shouldn't be given as much as her cousins. That might have even applied to food. I doubt anyone could be lively or outgoing growing up under these circumstances! If Fanny had been as witty and self-confident as some of Austen's other heroines it wouldn't have made the least bit of sense or been at all realistic! Austen surely realised this. Fanny isn't priggish either. She's too self-deprecating for that. Mansfield Park might well be my least favourite Austen novel but the reasons for that are nothing to do with Fanny.

Despite the fact that Fanny was raised by her horrible relatives she has many likeable qualities and is the one truly virtuous character in the Bertram household. She shows an intelligence and conscience that is completely lacking in Mrs Norris and the stupid, self-obsessed and conceited Bertram sisters. Also, Fanny stays true to her morals throughout unlike her cousin Edmund. She sees right through the Crawfords and refuses to back down in her decision not to marry Henry. This means so much more coming from her than it does from the outspoken Elizabeth Bennet. It took far more courage for Fanny to stand up for herself by refusing to marry Henry than it did for Elizabeth to turn down Mr Collins and Mr Darcy! Just because a person is quiet and shy it doesn't make them weak, just as a person who is outgoing and lively isn't necessarily strong. The Crawfords may well be charming, witty and occasionally kind but deep down they're weak and are lacking in morals. In fact the comparisons that some readers have made between Mary Crawford and Elizabeth Bennet have surprised and annoyed me quite a bit. Yes they're both witty, intelligent and beautiful but that's about it! Elizabeth is unselfish, compassionate and a really good person throughout the whole of Pride and Prejudice. Mary is very selfish and is only after money and rank. Yes she falls in love with Edmund in spite of herself but she constantly tries to persuade not him to be a clergyman because she doesn't consider it a good enough profession for her. And she really shows her true colours towards the end of the book when she expresses her hope that Tom Bertram will die so Edmund can become the heir to Mansfield Park! Even Edmund's eyes are finally opened to Mary's true nature by her reaction to Henry's affair with Maria Bertram. Mary doesn't seem to consider the adultery itself wrong at all, she's only upset that they weren't discreet about it and got found out. Can you imagine Elizabeth Bennet saying any of these things?! And then there's Henry Crawford. Yes he's charming and his love for Fanny did seem to be genuine. I really wanted Fanny to end up with him the first time I read the book. But could Fanny really have been happy with him and could she have changed him? Er... I'm not so sure. Henry might have improved under Fanny's influence if he'd married her but now I'm more inclined to think that he'd have gone back to his old rakish ways within a year or two. Fanny saw him flirting with both Maria and Julia Bertam (despite Maria being engaged). And even the fact that he was pursuing Fanny didn't stop him from sleeping with Maria. And the only reason why Henry pursued Fanny in the first place was because he thought it would be amusing to put "a hole in her heart". Yeah that's really romantic...

So why is Mansfield Park my least favourite novel by Jane Austen then? Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, because I hated most of the characters in this book and I wanted to scream at everyone's mistreatment of Fanny. Secondly, because I was irritated by the fact that for all Edmund's noble talk and supposedly high morals that he remained so blind to Mary Crawford's true character. He's so gullible and so easily deceived by Mary! He falls for all of Mary's flattery and flirtations! Also, Edmund might be the only Bertram to show Fanny any sort of consideration or kindness but he's still very insensitive and condescending towards her at times. He's like "Oh, you really want to ride a horse Mary? I can arrange that for you! Fanny won't mind if we take hers. Oh you want me to act in the play with you Mary? I can do that! Oh sure, staging a play in the house would go against my principles and I know how my father would feel about it but if it would make you happy. Oh you don't want to marry Henry, Fanny? Oh, go on! Sure he flirted with an engaged woman and her sister at the same time but it would make Mary happy!" Edmund doesn't even write any letters to Fanny when she's in Portsmouth either.

As you can probably tell I really dislike Edmund for most of the book! He is without doubt my least favourite Austen hero! I think he's a hypocrite and that poor Fanny really deserves far better. Yet despite my issues with Mansfield Park I still have a lot of respect for it. I can't bring myself to love it like I do with Austen's other novels but overall I still think that it's a very interesting read and that it's a four star worthy novel. J.K. Rowling must be a fan of this book as well since she named Filch's cat after Mrs Norris : ) This book is far better than its most famous adaptation as well. The 1999 film, directed by Patricia Rozema, tries to make Fanny more palatable to a modern-day audience by making her self-confident and outgoing - but it doesn't work AT ALL and is a travesty of Austen's character and novel!

Rating: 4/5 

'Emma' by Jane Austen (1815)

Synopsis: Emma Woodhouse is a beautiful, rich and clever young woman. She lives with her father in the village of Highbury, Surrey. Emma is convinced that she's always in the right about everything and the only person who is ever critical of her is her long-time friend Mr Knightley. When Emma convinces herself that she's responsible for setting up a marriage between her former governess Miss Taylor and a local gentleman called Mr Weston, she decides that she quite likes matchmaking. She ignores the advice of Mr Knightley by trying to set her new friend Harriet Smith up with the village vicar Mr Elton. Emma's careful plans go disastrously wrong. When two new people arrive in Highbury - the dashing Frank Churchill and the mysterious Jane Fairfax - Emma's life becomes even more interesting. Emma begins to see her flaws and is forced to realise that she doesn't know as much about life and love as she thinks she does. 

Although Pride and Prejudice is the most popular of Jane Austen's books, Emma is the one that is generally preferred by the literary critics. Emma is a truly wonderful book and it's either my joint favourite Austen book (along with Pride and Prejudice) or my second favourite Austen book. However I have to admit that it took a second read for me to realise just how wonderful Emma actually is. 

I wasn't too sure about Emma the first time I read it. I thought it was brilliantly-written and I did find it funny of course - but I found Emma Woodhouse herself really annoying and her romance with Knightley made me uncomfortable (he fell in love with her when she was 13?!). But when I read the book for the second time, about a year later, I took it all back. Now I absolutely love this book! I still think Emma is annoying at the start of the book and she is the most obviously flawed out of Austen's heroines. In the opening chapters Emma comes across as arrogant, snobbish and manipulative. I clearly remember wanting to slap Emma the first time I read these opening chapters! However when I read the book again I understood Emma's character far more. Much to my surprise I really did myself warming to her and appreciating her more likeable qualities. Yes, Emma herself has many flaws and she can be really annoying near the beginning of the book. But she has so many likeable qualities as well! She's such a caring and kind person. Her intentions are good and she's devoted to her father. She's also vivacious, compassionate, independent, intelligent and funny. She sees the error of her ways and she tries so hard to mend her faults and become a better person. Also, it's obvious that Austen herself really loves and cares about Emma and that really helps you to love and care about her. I realised that Emma's main problem at the beginning of the book is that she's lacking in self-awareness and maturity - and that can probably be put down to her upbringing and situation. You get the sense that Emma was spoilt by her father and was treated as an only child. Oh, Emma does have an older sister of course but Isabella got married and moved out when Emma was still relatively young. Also, Emma is quite clearly her father's favourite. But Emma's character development in the book is terrific - by the end of the book she's a much more humble and mature character and is far less meddling. Despite Austen's claim when she was writing the book - that she was creating a heroine whom only she could love - Emma is in fact very loveable. I think Austen was either joking or simply underestimating just how much people would love her. I love Emma Woodhouse now. I still think that Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet is the most instantly likeable and appealing of Austen's heroines but Emma Woodhouse strikes me as being the most realistically flawed and "normal" of Austen's heroines. Emma's faults initially make her the most annoying of Austen's heroines but ultimately make her one of the most endearing and likeable in my opinion.

Another big factor in my loving the book the second-time around was that I realised that Knightley wasn't being serious about falling in love with Emma when she was 13. Thank goodness! I really love Knightley's character as well and he's definitely one of Austen's best heroes. Knightley is charming, handsome, kind, honest, sensible, dashing, witty and a true gentleman. He and Emma make for a fantastic couple and I love the romance of the book.

There are so many other things to love about Emma as well. The writing is of course brilliantly witty and sharp and you really get a feel for the village that the characters are living in. Emma is also such an incredibly charming and funny book. There's so much humour in it. Sometimes people criticise this book by saying that there's not all that much drama, and that it's really just people talking and planning parties and outings, and that it's just Emma meddling in other people's lives. Now I suppose that's kind of true. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park there's no real drama or scandal in Emma. There's no real danger of Emma not getting her man. But - I love Emma for this! As much as I love exciting and suspenseful books with gripping plots, at the same time it can actually be really nice to read something where people simply go about their daily lives and do things - even trivial things - and live. Especially when all the dialogue between the characters is so wonderful. The characters are fantastic in this book. Some you love and some you dislike but they're still fantastic. They're all memorable, believable, realistic and interesting.

I also feel that Emma is the Austen book that has the greatest amount of social commentary. You get given a glimpse of poverty in the form of Miss Bates and her mother. You see how much disdain the rich had for people who were lower-class or of illegitimate birth (see the Elton's treatment of Harriet Smith). There are some digs at the slave trade and at how poorly governesses were often treated back then. There's even a great mystery subplot in Emma with a conclusion that I genuinely didn't see coming. Who sent Jane Fairfax the piano? What secret is she hiding? Emma isn't a detective novel of course but there's still the sense that things aren't quite what they seem. For this reason Emma is often cited as being an early pioneer of the mystery novel. Of course when you re-read the book you know exactly what's going on with Jane Fairfax but it's fun to go back and look for the clues that Knightley picks up on and Emma is completely oblivious too. And Emma herself is often cited as being one of literature's first unreliable narrators.

Just like Pride and Prejudice, Emma is absolutely wonderful and has become one of my favourite books.

Rating: 5/5    

Friday, 22 July 2011

'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott (1868-69)

Synopsis: Little Women is a coming-of-age novel and is set in New England during the American Civil War. It tells the story of the four March sisters and their mother whom they call "Marmee". Their father is away from home, is a chaplain in the Union Army, and doesn't really come into the story all that much. The sisters have to make do with several privations because of the war and their genteel poverty but they strive to be happy by doing charitable things for their neighbours, staging plays, going to parties, and just getting on with their day-to-day lives. Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, the grandson of their wealthy next-door neighbour, also becomes a close family friend. He is especially close to Jo. All of the four sisters are very different and they each have their flaws - throughout the novel the sisters learn to recognise and correct these flaws. The sequel Good Wives is usually published with Little Women and is set three years after the events of that book. Mr March has returned home from the war, Meg is getting married, Laurie is about to graduate from Harvard, Beth is struggling with illness, Amy is going away to Europe, and Jo is about to head off to New York to try to make something of herself.

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is a beautiful coming-of-age story. It's beautifully written and it flows very easily with the chapters being written almost as standalone short stories. I first read Little Women when I was about 11 and I still love it now I'm older. In fact it's one of my favourite books. I know it sometimes gets criticised for being sentimental and moralising but you know what? Sometimes it's just really nice to read something where characters actually grow and develop as people and learn from their mistakes, where virtue is rewarded, and where family members and friends fall out but forgive each other. Little Women is a classic and I'm hugely fond of it. It's charming, romantic, funny, moving, sad and lovely. The obvious love amongst the March family is really touching to read. What's also really interesting about the book is the fact that it's a semi-autobiographical story, with the four March sisters being based on Alcott and her real-life sisters. That's probably why all four of them - Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - are such engaging, endearing and believable characters. They all have their own flaws and strengths. OK, maybe Beth isn't as believably flawed as the others but she still shows that even the quietest and shyest of people can make a deep impact on the people and world around them. And that's not down to her short life, it's down to her being so kind and gentle. Meg, Beth and Amy are all likeable in their own different ways but Jo is by far my favourite of the sisters. She's a fantastic heroine and is extremely likeable despite her faults. She's brave, passionate, clever, independent and strong. I can also relate to her more than the other sisters: I'm not as tomboyish as she is and I don't have her temper but I can definitely identify with her love of reading and hatred of housework. Aside from the sisters I also really love their next-door neighbour - the charming, funny, intelligent and passionate Laurie. 

If I was just reviewing Little Women by itself it would definitely give it a 5/5 rating from me but I have to take Good Wives into account as well. I enjoy it less than its prequel, mainly because of my deep disappointment and frustration that Jo and Laurie don't end up marrying which I'd always hoped would happen. Oh, why couldn't Jo and Laurie have got married?! Laurie is a perfect match for Jo! They're alike in so many ways and they're best friends! Surely marrying your best friend is a good thing?! The fact that Jo and Laurie don't end up marrying has never felt just or right to me. Also no matter how many times I read Little Women I still can't warm to Professor Bhaer, no matter how hard I try. Usually I'd love a dark-haired, intellectual type with a deep love of books but Bhaer is just so... bland. And he's so much older than Jo. Laurie is a far more interesting and attractive character than Bhaer. And then there's the fact that Laurie ends up marrying Amy instead! No this is just so, so wrong! It feels as though Laurie is only settling for Amy because he can't have Jo and he sees Amy as being the next best thing - even though Jo and Amy have very different personalities : S

Having said that - apart from my issue with the Jo/Laurie plot - I love everything else about Little Women and it really is one of my favourite books! I think I know how those Erik/Christine shippers feel: they feel that Christine shouldn't have chosen Raoul but they love everything else about The Phantom of the Opera.

Rating: 4.5/5

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen (1818)

Synopsis: Catherine Morland is a young, naive, innocent girl and a huge lover of Gothic literature. She then leaves her countryside home and goes to stay in Bath for a few weeks with wealthy family friends Mr and Mrs Allen. This is her first trip away from home. Catherine goes to balls, the theatre and the baths and meets some very interesting new people. When Mrs Allen bumps into a long-lost school friend called Mrs Thorpe, Catherine makes friends with Mrs Thorpe's daughter Isabella. Catherine and Isabella both share the same passion for Gothic novels and Isabella tries to push Catherine towards a relationship with her boorish brother John (who attends Oxford with Catherine's brother James). Catherine also meets an intriguing young man called Henry Tilney. Catherine spends a great deal of time with Henry and his sister Eleanor and she becomes very attached to them. The Tilneys, along with their father General Tilney, then invite Catherine to stay with them for a few weeks at their family home Northanger Abbey. Catherine's imagination has been stirred by Gothic novels and, after some teasing from Henry, she begins to suspect that Northanger Abbey hides dark, mysterious secrets. When Catherine discovers the truth, her life and her attitude towards fiction are completely changed.

Northanger Abbey was published posthumously but it's actually the first book that Jane Austen wrote. Most scholars agree that she would have been barely out of her teens when she finished it. The book was sold to a publishers' under the title Susan but for some reason they didn't actually publish it. Austen's brother Henry later bought it back from them and Austen made some revisions to the book by changing Susan's name to Catherine. Austen then died. Henry Austen arranged for the book to be published and he was the one who came up with the title Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey isn't Austen's very best work. The writing lacks the depth and polish of some of Austen's later novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. But in terms of characterisation, plot and comedy Northanger Abbey is still a wonderful novel! It's entertaining, extremely funny, incredibly charming and great fun to read! You can really tell that Austen had a lot of fun writing this book too. I especially love Austen's narration in Northanger Abbey. It's more active than in any of her other novels and Austen inserts more of her own opinions into the narrative. This is probably a sign that she hadn't yet developed enough confidence in her writing but I still find Austen's personal opinions and humour really funny and interesting.

The romance of this novel and its leading characters are also delightful. Catherine Morland is only 17 and is tied with Marianne Dashwood as Austen's youngest heroine. Catherine isn't one of my absolute favourite Austen heroines but she's still very likeable. I love the fact that she's a bookworm and that she was a tomboy as a child. Catherine is also very sweet, kind and innocent. OK she might well be naive and a bit silly at first but she isn't stupid and she does mature throughout the book. She discovers that there is genuine evil in the world but it's not like anything she's ever read. And then of course there's Henry Tilney. Henry isn't just my favourite Austen hero - he's one of my favourite fictional characters of all time! I know every woman is supposed to love Mr Darcy the most out of Austen's men but not me! Henry is a bit like Mr Knightley in that he points out the heroine's foibles and gently shows her the error of her ways - but Henry is much wittier and more sarcastic than Knightley. He has some hilarious one-liners! Henry is also charming, intelligent, kind, good-looking, sensible and a true gentleman. He also loves novels so if you ever met him in real life you could have a conversation about books with him!

Northanger Abbey is one of Austen's lesser-known novels and it's nowhere near as famous as Pride and PrejudiceSense and Sensibility and Emma - which are probably Austen's most well-known works. I find this quite odd because I'd say that Northanger Abbey is actually one of Austen's more accessible works, especially for teenagers. Northanger Abbey is Austen's shortest novel, it has one of her youngest heroines, and it has her least complex and most straightforward plot. Also, all of Austen's novels are funny but Northanger Abbey is more obvious in its humour than the rest. This is partly because the book is such a brilliantly clever and funny parody of Gothic literature. Austen's narration and Catherine's fantasies are downright hilarious in places! However the ways in which Austen pokes fun at Gothic literature are far from being nasty - which as a fan of Gothic literature I thought was really nice. I wouldn't say that you necessarily need to be a fan of Gothic literature to get the humour in Northanger Abbey though. A knowledge of Gothic literature will no doubt enhance your appreciation of Northanger Abbey but it's by no means essential.

I adore Northanger Abbey and it's such a criminally underrated book. It's one of my favourites. It's such a lovely, happy, feel-good book. It always brings a smile to my face and it has one of my favourite fictional characters ever.

Rating: 5/5

'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' by Seth Grahame-Smith (2009)

Synopsis: The plot of this book is almost identical to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, only condensed and set in an alternate universe where Regency-era England is being terrorised by zombies. Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters live in a countryside estate called Longbourn with their parents. Mr Bennet instructs his daughters in martial arts and weapons training but Mrs Bennet would rather have her girls married off to wealthy men. When the wealthy bachelor Mr Bingley moves to nearby Netherfield, Mrs Bennett spots an opportunity and sends her daughters off to the first ball where Bingley will appear. The girls save the party from a zombie attack but Elizabeth clashes with Bingley's friend, the zombie-hunter Mr Darcy.

I'm a huge Jane Austen fan but I also have a sense of humour. I'm not one of those fans that gets automatically uptight and offended over humorous parodies of a favourite book or author. I suspect Jane Austen herself felt the same way because she wrote a comic parody of Gothic literature called Northanger Abbey. That being said Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is nowhere near as funny as its premise would suggest. Admittedly there are some fairly entertaining scenes and passages in it: the highlights being the opening three chapters and Darcy's first proposal. However, the problem is that the humour gets old very quickly and the novelty wears off. The gags became repetitive and just plain irritating after a while.

It's a shame really because this book has a great premise but it just doesn't warrant its length. I think it would have worked far better as a short excerpt in a magazine.

Rating: 2/5